THE BLOG
05/08/2013 05:37 pm ET | Updated Jul 08, 2013

Gender Equity and Mayan Spirituality

Latin America is considered the cradle of machismo. Images abound of gun-toting cowboys sleeping with a different woman every night while the mother of their children unrelentingly toils at the myriad of household labors of cooking, cleaning and raising a horde of malnourished children. Though that image undoubtedly merits some truth, it is, as with all stereotypes, not all-embracing.

Latin-American feminist scholars Myrna Méndez and Mayrelis Estrada consider that machismo "is an ideology that was not born into (Latin America), but came about as a product of the colonial sword... and also deprived us of the good life of the indigenous peoples who first lived here."

In the highlands of northern Guatemala, the Mayan-Ixil people who have only come into significant contact with the Western world within the last 120 years (and lamentably at a great expense to their people and traditional way of life) still conserve a rooted cultural legacy that contains traces of the original "good life."

For the outside visitor however, that "good life" as it pertains to the role and position of women, may very well seem tainted with remnants of that renowned stereotype of Latin-American machismo. Ixil women do spend the majority of their days between the recurrent household tasks of cooking corn, making tortillas, cleaning the house, tending the chickens and small garden and raising their children. Their husbands on the other hand spend much of the time away from the home toiling in the corn and bean fields that give sustenance to their families.

This description of the rural, family life of the Ixil people has caused many Western visitors to revile the gender oppression that they consider to be palpably apparent. The cultural baggage of this Western visitor, however, has its share of responsibility in the formulation of their speculative accusation. Modern, industrial society, following the dictates of capitalist theory, exalts the individual over the communal. Under this understanding, human rights, including the rights of women (to equality, to a life free of violence, for example) are only attainable on an individual basis.

The Ixil woman who is enslaved to the supposed drudgery of household work can only liberate herself and attain the rights of women by leaving the household, finding wage-work for herself and thus becoming less dependent on her husband (the household). It is clear that this type of "freedom" and "liberation" also inevitably leads to a separation from her community and traditional way of life.

For many development and humanitarian organizations working amongst the rural communities of the Mayan people in Guatemala, this fight for gender equality can only be made when rural women learn to assert their own individuality, follow their personal desires, and be free to escape from the bondage of the household and rural communities which are seen as backwards and inescapably oppressive.

This Western-biased approach to the struggle for gender equity takes no account the implications of the fact that the Ixil people, as with the majority of the indigenous cultures around the world, prioritize the communal over the individual. This fundamental difference has profound ramifications in how "rights" are understood, implemented and respected on a community level. Too many well intentioned development groups seeking to better the lot of women in the indigenous communities of Guatemala utterly ignore the fact that the Ixil people have historically developed their own traditions and community mores to respond to the issues of gender equality, the right to live free of violence, and the participation of women in public spaces as all cultures and peoples must do.

It would be untruthful to say that the typical Ixil woman in contemporary society lives a life free of violence. The local police station claims that they receive dozens of domestic abuse complaints on a daily basis to name just one of the many forms of violence suffered by Ixil women. But much of this violence is caused in part by a break in the continuity with ancestral values and traditions that held together the cohesiveness of the Ixil community. This lack of connection between the past and the present has been caused by the violence of Conquest, the forced imposition of foreign and supposedly superior worldviews, and the arrogance of discrimination all of which have in turn created a void of values and traditions to pertinently replace that which has been obscured.

The ancestral worldview and community way of life of the Ixil people, though not flawless, constitutes the best opportunity for Ixil women to collectively assert their right to gender equity, a life of free of violence, and other basic rights in a contextually respectful and adequate manner to assure the "good life" for Ixil women.

Mayan spirituality focuses of four core values; duality, complementarity, equilibrium, and harmony; that guide community norms and interactions. In the specific case of gender relations, Ana Laínez, spiritual guide of the Ixil people explains the importance of these four values this way:

"As indigenous people we don´t accept individuality as the basis for our culture. The goal of gender equity is not to create two, separate, independent individuals who compete for their personal rights and freedoms. Rather, we recognize the differences and duality between night and day, rain and sun and man and woman. We (man and woman) aren´t the same, but we need to be treated with equality and mutual respect in our differences so as to reciprocally complement one another in our strengths and our weaknesses."

The ultimate goal of this reciprocity and complementarity is to create equilibrium between men and women that ultimately leads to a community living in harmony.

Taking these four core values as a starting point for working towards gender equity for Ixil women makes much more sense both culturally and sensibly. In the rural, agrarian societies of the Guatemalan Highlands where the majority of families are subsistence farmers, the division of "roles" along gender lines does not necessarily imply an injustice or inequality. Rather, it represents the necessity of mutual, familiar support to maintain a household and assure survival. It represents the reciprocity and complementarity between men and women sharing the necessary work from of their specific skills and talents.

Gender equity from a Mayan perspective is capable of seeing the goodness of these differentiated roles. The complementarity attitude of "you have your gifts, and I have mine; if we put them together, we're closer to being complete" starkly contrasts to the Western concept of rights as a merely individual venture to be conquered and possessed. The ultimate goal of the right to gender equity (or any other right for that matter) is not individual freedom and autonomy, but community equilibrium. Ana Laínez describes this equilibrium as a community where "nobody is too strong or superior, nor too weak or inferior."

Whereas the Western worldview too often considers women's rights to be an individual attainment, for the Mayan people gender equity is intimately tied to community cohesiveness. A problem of course, is that due to 120 years of invasion and violence, much of that cohesiveness has been undermined. The violence towards women that is regrettably all to present in the Ixil communities today is characterized by a complementarity/reciprocity that does not lead to equilibrium.

The division of gender roles between household (woman) and farm (man) has begun to break down as many men leave the farm to migrate to the cities or to the North. Whereas the majority of women remain attached to the household, all too often the men are involved in livelihoods that take them far from their families, introduce them into the monetary economy (away from the subsistence economy), and instruct them in new worldviews that convince them that the traditional community they grew up in is outdated, backwards, and substandard. The infinite enticements of the consumer economy add to the growing dissatisfaction with traditional lifestyles, further disrupt the time-honored ways of living out gender equity and increase the diverse forms of violence suffered by Ixil women today.

The problem with offering "individual empowerment" to women as a response to the problem of gender inequality amongst the Ixil people today is twofold.

Firstly, this "solution" that takes women away from their communities and into urban centers where jobs are limitedly available often leaves women in situations of worse violence. The woman working a 12 hour shift at a mind-numbing sweatshop job for a pittance wage under the often violent authority of a usually male boss is hardly in a better situation than the woman cooking over a wood stove for 12 hours a day at her own home. The jobs typically available to women, especially housewives with little or no former education, are vaguely feudal at best.

Secondly, this "solution" is founded on the principles of the reigning economic system that depends on the destruction of local, rural communities to create an excess workforce for the industrial centers. The destruction of local communities eliminates the possibility for a community cohesiveness that, as stated above, is the necessary requisite for assuring the rights of women.

To respond to the issues of gender inequality and violence, the tendency in today's world is focused upon the "individualization" of rights promoted by a western mentality that is ultimately unfamiliar to rural, indigenous communities and their intimate reality. Though no community has a perfect governance structure or can guarantee an absolute respect for the rights of all, the challenge to reclaim and reconstruct the traditional, indigenous understandings of relationships between men and women represent a much healthier and more promising path towards achieving more profound gender equity.